The HP Shuffle: Is Meg Whitman the Management Cure the Company Needs?

Last week, Hewlett-Packard announced that former eBay chief executive and one-time California gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman has been appointed CEO of the largest U.S. tech company. Whitman replaces former CEO Leo Apotheker at the struggling firm.

Many were quick to scoff at this appointment, saying Whitman, who joined HP’s board in January, will fail; but, let’s take the contrarian view that she just might be the right person for the job. There’s HUGE potential in this move, if Whitman delivers what she has shown in the past that she can deliver.

Her task at hand – saving the once-flourishing tech Goliath — is not an easy one, but it can be done if she keeps perspective and takes this approach as she steps into the corner office:

Ignore the chatter

The blogosphere is full of criticism and head shaking because of the recent effect of Whitman’s run for California governor and her final moves at eBay, which included the purchase of Skype, among other things.

But, this is all smoke now and has nothing to do with her success at HP. If she’s going to be successful, she needs to spend very little time responding to these issues and more focusing on turning HP around.

Be decisive

Apotheker’s problem with the new strategy at HP was highly compounded by the fact that he waffled over what exactly HP was going to do.

Whitman needs to go in and take some time assessing the situation (as she did with eBay) and then start showing the market that she’s in control. She started this already by already announcing a timeline for the big decision on spinning off personal PCs. She needs to keep at it.

Be comfortable in the spotlight

We already know she is good at this. She doesn’t mind getting out in public and mixing it up with people.

Regardless of whether or not one supported her failed bid for governor of California, that experience adds to her communication acumen. Apotheker never quite got the communication issue right.

Connect to the customers

This may be Whitman’s greatest strength. If pundits take the time to look at where eBay was at the beginning and the efforts she made to get consumer input, they would realize that this is something she does very, very well.

Her “Voice of the Customer” program is one example, and the various feedback mechanisms she put into place for eBay helped take them from a few million in revenue when she got there to between $6 and $8 billion at the end of her tenure (reports vary on the actual number). She checked with 1.2 million customers on their opinion of the collectibles category before she made changes.

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Whitman knows how to handle customers, and that sensitivity will help even if HP gets out of the consumer market and focuses on corporate clients.

Build a culture

Culture-building is another area where Whitman is exceptionally strong. When she came to eBay, it was unclear what the company stood for. With her strong drive for building community, she developed a company that grew even while the dot com bubble burst for so many others.

It’s funny that many of the current comments are that she took a “once-great eBay” and damaged or destroyed it. Really? When she got there, “great” wasn’t what you would have called eBay under any circumstances.

Meg Whitman is not perfect, of course, and has made her share of missteps. But even her philosophy that 10 years is about long enough for a single CEO to run a company has great value at HP.

For one thing, that would seem to be a long time for them. For another, Whitman’s history shows that she is a strong turn-around CEO that can create a sustainable and highly valued company.

HP right now is lost in a fog, and Meg Whitman just might be the right person to help steer them out of it.


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